A Moment in Time – October 14, 1978

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Alastair Bull

February 7th, 2018

Two Triple Crown winners dramatically beaten

For the first, and to date only, time in U.S. horse racing history, the Triple Crown was won in successive years in 1977 and 1978.  The horses in question: Seattle Slew, the first horse to be unbeaten when he secured the Triple Crown, and Affirmed, who took the Crown after three stirring battles with Alydar.

As Seattle Slew had been kept in training at four, racegoers got to see another unique event in 1978: the first time two Triple Crown winners had raced against each other. Seattle Slew and Affirmed were both set for the Marlboro Cup at Belmont Park in September 1978; with Seattle Slew holding off Affirmed for the lead, he scored a three-length victory.

Affirmed’s trainer Laz Barrera didn’t want the same thing to happen when the pair met again in the Jockey Club Gold Cup on Oct. 14, then raced over 1 ½ miles. He entered Life’s Hope in the race to take on Seattle Slew in front and hopefully tire the 1977 Triple Crown winner.

Also in the race, and not entirely unnoticed, was Exceller. He was trained in France early in his career, and won two group one races as a 3-year-old before returning at four to win the 1977 Coronation Cup (G1) and the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud (G1). Sent to the California stable of Charlie Whittingham, he won the Canadian International.

In 1978 Exceller was outstanding. Coming into the Jockey Club Gold Cup he’d won four of his previous six races, all in grade one events. However, Seattle Slew had beaten him by four lengths in the 1 ¼-mile Woodward Stakes, and though Exceller was probably going to be better at 1 ½ miles, he was overshadowed in the lead-up by the two Triple Crown winners.

Seattle Slew, Affirmed, and Life’s Hope sprinted from the gates and went through the first quarter in an astonishing 22 3/5 seconds, and a half-mile in 45 1/5 seconds. Seattle Slew began to draw away as three-quarters of a mile was completed in 1:09 2/5; Affirmed’s saddle slipped, effectively putting him out of the race.

Exceller then began to make up ground rapidly, and as he got through on the inside it looked like an apparently tiring Seattle Slew would be easily beaten. Seattle Slew had other ideas though, and he somehow found the energy to fight Exceller all the way down the stretch. At the post, Exceller hung on to win by a nose.

Exceller received plenty of plaudits, becoming the second horse to beat two Triple Crown winners after Noor, and the first to do so in one race. But Seattle Slew’s effort given the incredibly fast early pace was sensational. As Andrew Beyer said after the race in the Washington Post: “Exceller was the winner of the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Seattle Slew was its hero.”

Seattle Slew was retired at the end of 1978 and became a breed-shaping sire. Affirmed raced again in 1979 and this time won the Jockey Club Gold Cup, beating another outstanding 3-year-old, Spectacular Bid. Exceller wasn’t as good in 1979, and wasn’t too successful as a sire, ending up in Sweden, where he was ultimately slaughtered in 1997. His fate helped inspire a horse rescue movement for horses past their racing and breeding days.